How to Help Each Child with Big Emotions
“I have found when another child is witnessing the process of helping kids with emotions they become aware and able to help. Mine often imitate what they've seen me do and can even help each other through upsets on their own with empathy and understanding.”
The hardest part of having more than one child is those times when they both need you at once. After all, your love may be unlimited, but you only have two hands.
That’s why preventive maintenance is so important—children don’t fall apart as often, or as unpredictably. (Here's a whole article on preventive maintenance for you.)
But there will inevitably be times when you’re the only adult present, you have more than one child in your care, and both children really need you at once, or one child needs your full attention for ten minutes but you can’t focus on him because the other child is there. What can you do?
1. When both children NEED you at once
...try to tend to them both. (If you pick one, your children will perceive you as picking a favorite or taking sides.) Announce what’s happening.
“I have two upset children who are both hurting right now! You both need your Papa right now, don’t you…Come here, my Sweethearts, there is always plenty of room in my arms…You on my right, and you on my left, both of you in my arms….That’s right, you can cry as much as you want…then we will sort this out and make everything better… whatever happens, we always work it out.”
This isn’t easy, but it is possible. Just keep one on each side so they’re out of reach of each other physically.
2. If you need to go to one child over the other, speak to the child you aren’t going to.
So, for instance, when one child (Brian) is hurt physically, while the other child (Kaylee) is hurt emotionally, you might scoop Brian up, while saying
“Kaylee, I hear you’re hurting and you need me, and I will be right there. I am just helping Brian with his owie, and then I will help you with your feelings.”
3. Keep the less needy child busy while you tend to the one who is most upset.
If one child doesn’t seem particularly upset, connect with her briefly to make sure she’s okay. Give her a big hug and tell her “I have something special for you to do for a few minutes while I help your sister with her feelings.” Then, pull out an activity you know she loves, like an audio book or the Activity Box with sensory bags that you set up to keep your child busy while you fed the baby.
(Sensory bags are covered in Chapter 9 of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. Essentially, you create some sensory bags or boxes in advance and keep them handy for these occasions when you need to keep your child busy. You can find lots of suggestions online to make simple sensory bags or boxes.)
Worried that your 16 month old can’t be safely occupied? Look online for sensory bags for young toddlers and use a lot of duct tape so there’s no chance he’ll tear it open. Put him in the next room with his sensory bag, visible, while you help the child who’s upset through her meltdown.
4. When your other child is concerned about the crying sibling, acknowledge her feelings and reassure her.
“Your sister is sad and mad…I’m helping her with her feelings...She'll feel better soon.”
5. If the other child insists on coming close
...just sit on the floor and keep them on opposite sides of you. You’ll have to shift attention from one to the other, but you can acknowledge the feelings of both.
6. The child having the meltdown will often get angry that the other sibling is intruding.
Just acknowledge his unhappiness:
“You don’t want your sister here…You’re having a hard enough time without her…Sometimes it’s hard to have another person around.” Then, restore safety: “Your sister is just worried about you…She will stay over here, away from you. I am right here for you."
7. Keep your sense of humor.
Two crying children will feel like an emergency. And for sure, you deserve a medal if you can avoid lashing out. But if you can find a way to stay calm, you'll help them shift their energy, too. When children are over-wrought, they need you to understand why they're upset ("You're mad and sad....your brother bumped your tower and it fell down"). But just as important, they need your nonverbal communication that they're safe; it really isn't the end of the world even though they feel like it is. So take a deep breath and shift yourself out of "fight or flight." Just keep breathing and reminding yourself that they'll feel (and act) better after a good cry.
8. Don't try to teach.
When we get anxious, we often try to solve problems by looking for blame. ("If you hadn't done that to your sister, everything would be fine. Next time, listen when I tell you...") But when emotions run high, the learning centers in the brain shut down, so your child can't learn. Not to mention, when we're upset we often say exactly the wrong thing because it comes from fear. Just resist talking except to connect with compassion. "I'm sorry this is so hard, Honey."
9. What if you need to cry, too?
Go ahead! Just explain that it's not her fault you're crying and she doesn't have to make it better; that everyone needs to cry sometimes and you'll feel better after you cry for a bit. You're modeling that emotions aren't an emergency, which is the first step toward healthy self-regulation. (Of course, if you're weeping every time your kids get upset, then you can't be helpful to them, so it's time to get some support for your own healing.)
There aren't any easy answers when everyone needs you at once. That's why Preventive Maintenance is so essential; it really reduces unpredictable meltdowns. And helping kids with big emotions is hard work, because you have to regulate your own. But when your child watches you help his sibling through a big upset, he learns how to empathize and help someone who's in pain, a lesson that will last his whole life. Not bad for half an hour’s very hard work!
This article was excerpted from Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. published by Perigee/Penguin.
“Adding a child to the family creates a cascade of challenges. Dr. Laura Markham shows parents how to avoid common sibling difficulties, and how to convey their love, even in stressful situations, so children truly feel supported. Open this book, and you'll find clarity, wisdom, workable ideas, and generous helpings of respect for parents and children.” --Patty Wipfler, founder, Hand in Hand Parenting